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Design Thinking Engineers
Walking the Design-Centric Path at NUS
by Choo Jian Huei

ince 2009, the Faculty of Engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has been offering undergraduate students the opportunity to experience a unique engineering curriculum that transcends the boundaries of traditional engineering fields.

Blending engineering training with a Design Thinking mindset, the Design-Centric Curriculum, or DCC, aims to nurture engineering graduates who not only possess depth of expertise in their fields of specialization, but also are able to:

  1. Take on new challenges and be comfortable with tackling the unfamiliar
  2. Identify and define problems and formulate innovative and creative solutions
  3. Take ideas from conceptualization through to design, implementation and operation
  4. Engage in systems-level thinking and deal with complex systems
  5. Articulate ideas effectively
  6. Lead or work in a multi-disciplinary team
  7. Appreciate the cultural and social dimensions of design

This is achieved by putting students through a multi-year, multi-disciplinary journey of learning and discovery, to deliver innovative and creative solutions for complex and coupled problems.

The Design-Centric Curriculum at NUS Faculty of Engineering

The Design-Centric Curriculum is delivered by the Engineering Design and Innovation Centre (EDIC). Launched in 2009, the DCC transformed the way engineering undergraduate students were taught and one of the pedagogical innovations was the use of Design Thinking by DCC students to identify, define, and scope their multi-year, multi-disciplinary projects, as well as to develop creative solutions to real problems. This effort is aligned with the fourth key strategy recommended by the Economic Strategies Committee of Singapore (ESC) to introduce Design Thinking programs and modules in local educational institutions to make innovation pervasive in our workforce, and to strengthen commercialization of R&D.

The DCC provides a platform for learning and thinking out of the box, bringing together engineering, form, function, aesthetics, culture and lifestyle, to solve problems from multi-disciplinary perspectives.

DCC currently explores three thematic areas: Smart and Sustainable Cities, Future Transportation Systems and Engineering in Medicine.

A Unique Learning Pathway

Joining the DCC

The journey starts early in the first year of undergraduate studies when Engineering students are invited to apply for entry to the DCC. They are then screened via a specially-tailored selection process developed in-house at NUS Engineering. This selection process itself has been a special event of its own, where applicants are given a brief peek at what will be their undergraduate experience to come, if successful.

Successful applicants are then enrolled into DCC modules, on top of the core modules in their respective departments. The first DCC module is a Design Thinking course, during which they form project groups with like-minded colleagues, but from different cultural backgrounds and different engineering disciplines. Here, they get an early exposure to working with colleagues having dissimilar expertise.

Beginning with Divergent Thinking

In the early DCC modules, students are taught ways to broaden their thinking, to think out of the box, to think at the systems level and to question existing trends. They are challenged to question their own thoughts from different angles.

DCC students define the projects that they work on. They are given the independence to choose areas of interest within the themes of the DCC, but are nudged to be relevant to society, solve problems which have societal impact, and encouraged to develop cool technologies along the way.

In defining their projects, DCC students will have the opportunity to immerse in real-life situations either through field trips or by following the daily routine of a target user. They also get in contact with potential stakeholders of their work to understand their needs.

Through this immersion exercise, students get to appreciate the problem at the ground level, and gain exposure to necessary social and cultural sensitivities and economic awareness. With every interview they conduct, more information is obtained. The data enables them to discern the important and urgent from the less crucial matters. Early perceptions that they bring into their project definition also evolve accordingly, requiring them to absorb and adapt quickly.

They have the opportunity to be inspired to achieve that Eureka moment during which they spot a new opportunity or problem to invest their time in. The data they collect is unique and targeted, sometimes never been collected by any organization before.

A panel of DCC facilitators with diverse backgrounds work alongside students from the birth of ideas and concepts, to the validation of engineering prototypes. The facilitator-to-student ratio is usually one-to-one within each project group, sometimes higher, and more often than not, the facilitators go through a discovery process with students, even learning new knowledge from the students.

Converging on the Engineering Solution

Throughout the project definition and ideation stage, students make low resolution prototypes, always in a fun and engaging way. Tools of the trade are the whiteboard marker, "Post-It" notes and a bucketful of modeling clay, even the odd bits of recycled boxes and paper cups, among other improvised items. This is done iteratively, where ideas are formed and then taken apart, with each cycle contributing to a clearer articulation and documentation of concept by the students.

It is important that the "engineering element" takes center stage in the composition and scoping of their eventual project work.

When concepts are matured, they take their projects to the next level where they begin to apply their grounding in engineering to probe, test and prove their concepts. In the more advanced DCC modules, students are guided to demonstrate high engineering rigor in their work. High-resolution prototyping in the form of computer models, for example, are commonly used. And while they crystalize their concepts with deep engineering analysis, incorporating perspectives from their respective fields, students are given access to "tinkering spaces" in the form of hardware prototyping and assembly facilities to allow them to physically realize their concepts.

In the process, they see and feel engineering in the flesh, and get to truly experience the full developmental cycle of an engineered system, including the ups and downs of getting things to work, firstly at the components level, and finally, to work together as a system.

Staying Relevant and On Course

It is designed that through the conduct of their work, DCC students get to appreciate the relevance of their on-going engineering training outside DCC and are able to connect what they learn with what they will be doing in the future as engineers.

One effective way of imparting real-life relevance on DCC students, is by inviting selected external speakers to share knowledge and advice on industrial practices. The speakers also act as a board for students to bounce their ideas off to get relevant and current feedback to bring out the technopreneur and entrepreneur in them.

Constant contact and regular discussions among project group members, with and without DCC facilitators, are some of the measures in place to ensure that their projects progress healthily in the right direction. Although students are made aware from the beginning that changes in project direction will happen, but always with the original proposition in mind, some have found it challenging to cope with the uncertainty. Nevertheless, they are deliberately exposed to the situation which is very similar to the scenario one will face in the working world. And they learn, first-hand, the ability to make difficult decisions.

A Wide Spectrum of Projects

Students have a wide choice of projects to work on, depending on their inclination. There are opportunities for individuals to formulate the problem themselves so that the project investigates an area of his or her choice. But if the individual prefers more guidance, there are the more directed projects that he or she can choose from the focus themes of the DCC.

A wide spectrum of projects has materialized since the start of the curriculum in 2009, with a large portion of them self-initiated by students.

Examples include a student-initiated project named "Waste Is Gold", which aims to prove the concept of a distributed recycling system. Initially, the project set out to recycle aluminum cans "on-the-spot", by introducing a customized recycling machine which uses a cutting-edge materials processing technology. The project then re-directed its focus on food waste instead as it was studied that this particular category of waste needed the attention, especially in the context of Singapore.

Another more directed project, for example, where students are given a challenge to solve a specific problem, is the Nano-Satellite project. One of the early challenges presented by the project, requires students to develop a communications balloon system along with a base control station, mimicking a satellite/ground-control system. The balloon system, with a specified weight, is launched into the sky to perform measurements of temperature, pressure, altitude, magnetic field and other parameters, among other intelligent capabilities that students will develop.

The range of projects continues to widen and the lists grows with every new cohort of students.

Design Summer Program

DCC yet again moves into uncharted territory when it runs the inaugural Design Summer Program in July 2012.

This is an international student symposium designed for innovative, broad-minded and passionate students to engage in the engineering of solutions to address the grand challenges in our society for the 21st century and beyond. The aim of the summer program is to expose DCC students and invited participants to issues related to urbanization and what roles design engineers can play to solve some of the problems associated in the context of rapidly growing Asian cities. Students are also given a glimpse of the cultural and social issues related to Asian cities.

Field work will also be incorporated into the program and a time for active learning and practicum. Participants will be organized in groups to carry out work involving ideation, conceptual design, prototyping and a final presentation. This will be an opportunity for DCC students to work with students from all over the world, right here in Singapore. The two-week program offers a unique opportunity for participants to interact closely with undergraduates from top universities from North America, Europe/UK and the wider Asian region.

DCC Community

At DCC, all work and no play is not deemed to be cool. There exists a continuous effort to actively find ways to give students a meaningful experience while they work hard on their projects. DCC students are, after all, the biggest and most important group of the DCC community.

The DCC Residential Program, located at the University Town, is one such initiative. It aims to provide students with a meaningful living and learning experience on campus. In this program, DCC students live, work and play as a group and get to initiate and participate in activities that will foster strong teamwork amongst themselves. It is also a way to allow students to simply have fun while they embark on the DCC journey together. Acceptance to this program is on a competitive basis and DCC residents are expected to contribute actively to creating an exciting DCC community.

Another initiative is the DCC Student Committee where elected students come forth to lead in creating a dynamic DCC community. It is a platform for the students to hone their leadership and social skills.

Looking Ahead

The DCC aims to produce engineering graduates with a global perspective who are sensitive to local cultural subtleties and who have the ability to identify and solve complex problems of societal importance.

By offering its unique features to students, one of which is the use of Design Thinking in its pedagogy, the DCC is perhaps one of the many strategies that NUS Engineering uses to design future engineers who can think on their feet to adapt to uncertainty and ambiguity, and yet deliver quality engineering to society. The DCC path trains these future engineers to see things from a broad but relevant perspective, to articulate their ideas in an effective way, and to be adaptive.

There has been some positive feedback received recently, sharing that DCC students are beginning to show traits that are unique from other students. However, more proof remains to be seen if these DCC students move on to become good, robust engineers in society. After all, the first batch of DCC students will just be entering their final year of undergraduate studies in the 2012/2013 academic year. An air of optimism persists among facilitators.

The walk through this unconventional path has indeed been a challenging one for both students and facilitators. The journey thus far has been described to be an exciting road trip filled with bumps and bends. However, the route gets clearer with each obstacle maneuvered. Lessons learnt have been invaluable to DCC students and the DCC team in charting the next leg of the journey, which as expected, will continue to be different.

For more information about the Economic Strategies Committee of Singapore, please visit: https://app.mof.gov.sg/data/cmsresource/ESC%20Report/ESC%20Full%20Report.pdf

Choo Jian Huei is a Lecturer at the Engineering Design and Innovation Centre (EDIC), Faculty of Engineering, NUS, which delivers the Design-Centric Curriculum (DCC). He is a member of the DCC facilitation team. For more information about the article, please contact him at engcjh@nus.edu.sg.

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